North Korea has discovered that not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but malware may be more powerful than its nuclear deterrent.
For decades, North Korea's propaganda machine (dubbed by a colleague of mine, Aidan Foster-Carter, the Great Vituperator) has churned out warnings of impending catastrophe and obliteration. Its propagandists regularly threaten to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" and to engulf the region in "thermonuclear war." In July, Hwang Pyong-so, director of the military's general political bureau, warned that North Korea would fire "our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and Pentagon."
The threats are issued with sufficient frequency that they are usually shrugged off as pathetic pleas for attention. In Seoul, the "sea of fire" rhetoric is taken about as seriously as a forecast of rain; the threats barely make headlines in South Korea.
North Koreans could hardly have imagined that their threats would result in even the partial cancellation of Sony Pictures' "The Interview," a screwball comedy featuring an assassination of their leader, Kim Jong Un.
"They must be absolutely astounded at how Sony and the theaters collapsed," suggested a veteran North Korea analyst who spent much of his career parsing Pyongyang's rhetoric for the CIA. "The North Koreans hurl threats at the South Koreans all the time. Chosun Ilbo [a conservative South Korean newspaper] would have been shut down a million times if they took Pyongyang's threats seriously," he wrote me in an email.
Hacking Sony (assuming that Pyongyang is indeed behind the so-called Guardians of Peace) is the least of North Korea's offenses, a country that keeps up to 200,000 people in a gulag and has reprocessed enough plutonium for 10 small nuclear bombs. But nothing of late has gotten the world to pay attention like the hack of Sony Pictures, which revealed such sensitive information as what Sony execs really think of Angelina Jolie and Aaron Sorkin.
Now comes what is presumed to be the "proportional" retaliation promised by President Obama; North Korea's Internet crashed Monday. It might, though, be less than proportional, given that North Korea barely uses the Internet.
There are reported to be only 1,024 IP addresses for the entire country of 25 million people. Academics use a closed intranet system called Kwangmyong (literally "walled garden") that is like an online encyclopedia. Only top graduate students and a handful of the elite are allowed to use the Internet and only after registering which sites they visit. North Korean officials who do international business often use email, but they are not permitted to surf the Web. North Koreans I met this year in China told me they'd never even heard of the Internet until they'd left the country.
Kim Jong Un took over as North Korea's president three years ago, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. He was still in his 20s. (He is thought to be 31 now.) For lack of other qualifications, North Korea's propagandists spun Kim as the tech-savvy "young general" who would bring the country into the 21st century. When he graces the public with his appearances, Kim often picks locations associated with youth (like Pyongyang's amusement park) or technology. After a mysterious six-week absence in autumn, Kim reappeared in mid-October to inaugurate the Wisong Scientists Residential District, for people who are "building a rich and powerful nation by registering signal scientific and technological successes with a high idea and beautiful dream."
Along with the nuclear program and missile building nurtured by Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un has presided over a rapid expansion in his country's military computer program. South Korean military intelligence told that country's Yonhap News Agency this summer that the number of hackers had nearly doubled to 5,900 from 3,000 two years earlier.
North Korea officially denies involvement with the Sony hack, all the while praising it as a "sacred drive for cooperation in the fight against the U.S. to defend human justice and conscience and to dismember the U.S. imperialist."
"The just struggle to be waged by them across the world will bring achievements thousands of times greater than the hacking attack on the Sony Pictures Entertainment," crowed a statement Sunday attributed to the Policy Department of the National Defense Commission.
Oddly, North Korea's strength might in fact be its own weakness. North Korea keeps its chronically hungry populace unplugged so they won't know what they are missing in the outside world; an added benefit is that the regime is relatively impervious to cyberintelligence. The bureaucracy still runs on carbon paper and hand-inked ledgers, the same as it always has. If there were ever to be an all-out cyberwar, the kind that results in mutually assured destruction, North Korea might be the last one standing. That must make their apparent triumph over Sony all the sweeter.
Barbara Demick, the author of "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," is on leave from the Los Angeles Times, where she was most recently Beijing bureau chief. She is completing a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations.